A beloved athlete posts a brief song lyric on social media. Commentators denounce the lyric as offensive and him as a bigot. He says he didn’t know it was offensive, and apologizes. What does it all signify?
It signifies that it is in the interests of the capitalist ruling class to foment division and to blame the oppressed as somehow the real perpetrators of bias and bigotry.
The athlete is Los Angeles Lakers basketball megastar LeBron James. The lyric, which he posted to Instagram Dec. 22, included the phrase “Jewish money” from a rap song by the performer 21 Savage he’d been listening to.
Reaction was swift. Sports Business Daily reporter Darren Rovell took to Twitter to express his outrage and call on Jewish people, including National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver, to join him.
Sports Business Daily is owned by Advance Publications Inc., a media conglomerate with vast holdings. These include Conde Nast, which publishes Vogue and Vanity Fair among other magazines; Fairchild Publications, which owns Women’s Wear Daily and other publications; and American City Business Journals, the biggest publisher of metropolitan business newsweeklies in the United States.
SBD is, in other words, a major capitalist media outlet. It posted $2.2 billion in revenues in 2017. Rovell, formerly of the worldwide sports conglomerate ESPN, the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, is one of its best-known commentators and a right winger.
In fact, the headline of Newsweek magazine’s Dec. 23 article on this “controversy” characterized James’ Twitter post as “angering conservative critics.”
So a reactionary writer for a website devoted to the profitability of professional sports tries to stir up hostility toward one of the country’s most prominent and progressive Black athletes for an unintended and immediately retracted reference. Although the attempt ultimately fizzled, and did not draw in Commissioner Silver, it did gather some support, mostly on Twitter, where dozens of tweets called James anti-Semitic.
The day after his tweet, LeBron James said on ESPN: “Apologies, for sure, if I offended anyone. … I actually thought it was a compliment, and obviously it wasn’t through the lens of a lot of people. My apologies. It definitely was not the intent, obviously, to hurt anybody.” (Dec. 22)
It seems clear, it rings true, that James honestly didn’t know the historical meaning and use of phrases like “Jewish money” as fodder for anti-Semitism. He apologized anyway. What more could he do?
Also on a Dec. 22 episode of his HBO series, “The Shop,” James criticized the majority of white National Football League billionaire owners for having a “slave mentality” by disregarding the rights of their players, 70 percent of whom are Black. (espn.com, Dec. 22) James made no apology for this accurate statement.
Real source of anti-Semitism
This is far from the first time that a prominent person of color, especially a Black person who is an outspoken activist against racism, as is LeBron James, has been lambasted as an anti-Semite. It’s not the first effort to direct anger and fear, especially Jewish anger and fear, against such a person.
The issue, in reality, is never what the person did or didn’t say, or how perfectly phrased the person’s apology was. The issue is that it is in the ruling class’s interest to deflect attention from the real source of anti-Semitism: itself.
Anti-Semitism is a very old, very effective strategy to direct the working class’s rage away from the true source of its problems: the ruling class, which is overwhelmingly made up of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. It instead portrays Jewish people, a tiny group — only 0.2 percent of the world’s population — as somehow owning and controlling the world’s wealth by being devious, evil schemers bent on driving workers and the poor into poverty and misery.
While its roots are deep and wide and go back millennia, anti-Semitism flourished during the rise of capitalism in Europe. From 19th-century czarism in Russia through the Nazi genocide, it was skillfully crafted as a tactic to break up revolutionary movements. To this day, with resurgent fascist organizing again casting caricatured Jewish bankers as the culprit behind workers’ worsening standard of living in Germany, France and other countries, the capitalists wield anti-Semitism as a favored tool.
In this context, the absurdity of portraying oppressed communities as purveyors of anti-Semitism should be clear. Who has the motive and the power to foment attacks against Jewish people? Who poses an actual threat to Jewish people?
Of course it is not, and can never be, the oppressed. Of course it is only, and will always be, the bosses.
The threat is real, as evidenced by the Oct. 27 massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Emboldened under Trump, previously suppressed elements, the worst violent, anti-Semitic scum, are surfacing and acting in a way that has not been seen in this country for decades. At the same time, racist attacks, already epidemic, are on the rise, whether against Latinx migrants, Black youth, or other oppressed people.
The only effective response is unity, first and foremost against racism, and against all forms of bias and division, from anti-Semitism to sexism to LGBTQ2S oppression. It’s this unity, rejecting the bosses’ attempts to divert anger away from themselves, that will move the struggle of the workers and oppressed forward against capitalism itself.